There are limitless paths to explore when you're totally open to new experiences in music. Even if you choose to visit darker genres and styles ? as I'm sure you do, if you're reading these pages ? there's no end to the chilling possibilities in store if you keep your eyes and ears open...
Case in point: I'd had some prior experience with a few of the artists in Projekt Records' repertoire ? I've always been fascinated with the eerie electronic menace of Android Lust, and Goth favorite Voltaire always brings a wicked smile to my face (check out our review of his hilarious Halloween release Ooky Spooky), but only recently I found myself spellbound by some of that label's more subtle, sensual offerings, and it suddenly came over me just how many macabre delights I'd been missing.
Long an established name in Gothic, darkwave, Neoclassical and ethereal music fields, Projekt is a treasure trove for anyone who wants to lose themselves in a netherworld of mist-shrouded ruins, forbidden midnight ceremonies and seductive specters promising dark delights from beyond. There's too much to cover in one sitting, so I decided to pick three standouts from their vast library.
My absolute favorite ? and possibly one of the best dark ambient releases in recent years ? comes from one of the leading names in that genre, the UK experimental outfit Attrition, alias Martin Bowes. I came upon this talented artist a few years ago ? fairly late in the game, considering Attrition has been around since the early '80s ? and I was instantly hooked by Bowes' solitary devotion to creating moods and atmospheres instead of catchy melodies. Back when the term ?industrial music? was less mainstream and applied mainly to avant-garde acts like Throbbing Gristle, Coil and Einsturzende Neubaten, Attrition were building a revolutionary style of their own, and decades later Bowes hasn't strayed from that goal with the latest Attrition release All Mine Enemys Whispers ? one of the band's finest achievements in a long and storied career.
Whispers weaves the horrific tale of Mary Ann Cotton, one of England's most notorious serial killers. Responsible for the deaths (by poisoning) of up to 21 people ? most of whom were her own children ? Cotton would be perfect subject matter for a horrifying Halloween concept album. But instead of taking the more overtly gruesome route, Bowes opts for a sublime ambiance of growing doom to pull you headlong into the very thoughts of this human monster... even daring to make you sympathize with her before dragging you bodily to the depths of the underworld, surrounded by the whispering chants of her many victims.
As it turns out, Cotton is more than a mere macabre curiosity as far as this artist is concerned: the project was born out of Bowes' own ancestral link to Cotton's killing spree. Not only is he a distant relative of the constable who arrested Cotton in 1872, but Bowes recently came into possession of Cotton's sewing box, which the convicted murderer gave to the officer's daughter (Bowes' great great great aunt) just before her imprisonment. A photo of the box is included in the CD liner notes, and the sound of the box being struck can be heard on the track ?Gates of Eternity.?
Interwoven with Bowes' elaborate synth programming and sound effects ? which range from deep drones and hums to open, airy washes and some jarringly distorted glitch-loops ? are eerie contributions from variety of recognizable names in the Gothic and dark ambient/industrial genres: Emilie Autumn takes up her signature violin as well as providing one of the few conventional lyric passages (a creepy rendition of ?Rock of Ages?) on ?Gates of Eternity,? while Rasputina's Erica Mulkey joins on cello, Ned Kirby of Stromkern plays piano and Laurie Reade of Pigface and High Blue Star offers backing vocals. Even Bowes' children participate with a bone-chilling rendition of a Victorian children's rhyme (?Mary Ann Cotton... She's dead and she's rotten?) on opening track ?What Shall I Sing?? The expanded canvas results in a more complex, focused sound than I expected, with motifs that speak to an abstract storytelling style ? it all feels like the score to a sublime horror film that exists only in your mind.
Avoiding all of the pretensions that can often accompany a concept album, Whispers is one of the most unique musical realizations I've heard in a years. A completely immersive work of art, it deserves to be experienced in a darkened room, awash in your choice of incense. To top off the experience, there's even a set of collectible stickers styled after vintage poison vial labels, that you can use to keep your roommate from borrowing your favorite cologne.
Equally profound but slightly more conventional in terms of melody and structure is the haunting Neoclassical group Arcana, the brainchild of Sweden's Peter Bjärgö. The long awaited follow-up to 2004's Middle Eastern opus Le Serpent Rouge, the latest album Raspail is one of Projekt's premium releases for 2008.
Largely organic in tone, the songs of Raspail are built upon the sound of authentic multi-cultural percussion instruments, although electronics do play a role, particularly glassy synth lines and hollow drones (not to mention the awesome Roland R-8 drum machine), which lends a distinctly shamanistic, ritual feel to the proceedings, creating the impression of a profound occult ceremony beneath the stars. Dreamlike vocal contributions, ranging from Bjärgö's superbly chilling baritone to the gossamer angel's lilt of Ann-Mari Thim, drift like sliver clouds over the pointed rhythmic underpinnings.
As you might expect, the lyrical themes in Raspail lean toward the dark side ? not specific dark forces and deeds, but rather a reflection on the shadowed recesses of the unknown, both within the human psyche and the undiscovered countries beyond our experience. The goosebumps-inducing ?Abrakt? establishes a dark menace with its crystalline synth lead over a low bass theme, lending weight to Bjärgö's multi-tracked dirge harmonies. In contrast to the coldly ethereal melodies, the tracks are given a comforting warmth by rhythmic techniques ranging from woody drums and Gypsy-flavored hand cymbals in ?Invisible Motions,? to a dramatic fusion of Arabesque and traveling carnival moods in ?Parisal.? Acoustic guitar adds an intimate intensity to cuts like ?Out of the Gray Ashes,? and warm string beds (primarily violin and cello) add texture to the drone-like ambient undercurrent of closing track ?Circumspection.?
There's a meditative, hypnotic vibe to Raspail that reaches beyond its ?ambient? nature... it's one of those albums that you may at first choose to play in the background while you're doing something else, only to find yourself sitting motionless in front of the speakers even after the last track has finished, your planned activity long forgotten. It's that good.
Even more organic and earthy in tone is vocal duo Mirabilis, comprised of notable darkwave/ethereal artists Summer Bowman (from The Machine in the Garden) and Dru Allen (of This Ascension). Their second release Sub Rosa (following 2004 debut Pleiades) continues to demonstrate their ease at breaking ranks with their original bands' electro/Goth backgrounds and entering territory familiar to fans of Loreena McKennitt and Lisa Gerrard. Though brimming over with period instruments (hammered dulcimer, flute, and assorted rustic percussion) and a light touch of electronic coloration, the delicate and lush interplay between the two vocalists is the driving force of this outfit; as in the days of old, the human voice is regarded not only as the main lyrical component, but as a distinct instrument in itself.
Sub Rosa (from the Latin term for secrecy, literally ?under the rose?) continues many of the same themes as its predecessor ? melancholy journeys of mind and body through love, pain and wonder, with a reverence toward singing and songwriting styles that span the centuries ? including a few modern twists that may surprise you.
Graceful, low-key instrumentation serves as an effective bed for the lyrical warmth of Allen and Bowman's vocals for several tracks ? harpsichord drives much of ?Farce,? while dulcimer colors ?A Ballade of the Centre.? But there's also some instrumentally robust cuts, including the title track and epic-sounding ?The Vastness,? showcasing the duo at their most cinematic.
Guest vocalist Cindy Adzuki Chang steps to the forefront for ?The Journey? (a heartfelt memorial piece) and the Middle Eastern-inflected ?Odyle,? to which she also contributes a snake-charming flute. Traditional passages ?The Flowers Pressed Down,? Il Est Bel Et Bon? and ?O Maria Mater Pia? demonstrate the duo's impressive skill at layering vocals into a rich tapestry without the need of additional instrumentation.
Skipping forward a few centuries, most unique is the inclusion of timeless standards ?Nature Boy? (probably best known to modern audiences from the Baz Luhrmann musical Moulin Rouge) and torchy crooner ?Angel Eyes? (treated to sound like a degraded vintage recording), as well as an effective cover of the Beatles classic ?Because.? They then catapult us into the 21st century to close the album with an offbeat dance mix of opening track ?World Indifferent,? demonstrating how a well-executed song can serve many purposes, including a bumping tribal-fusion groove (this mix is reportedly a favorite in the routine of many professional belly dancers).
A testament to the enduring strength of quality songwriting and expert vocal skill, Sub Rosa is a melancholy but ultimately affirming work that weaves a powerful spell, transcending genre boundaries and transporting the listener to another time and place.
In summary, if you're looking for a haunting musical experience outside the realm of conventional rock, metal, electronic or retro-pop conventions, remember that sometimes the softest sounds ? the ones that gently slip their cold fingers around your unprotected neck ? can give you a shudder more deeply than the most overtly horrifying sonic assault. If you're up to the challenge, drop by Projekt's website to sample their exotic wares... but be warned: if you listen with the lights out, you might want to keep one hand near the switch.